Languages are a funny thing. Intrinsic to how we identify and communicate, the language we use immediately ascribes us to the culture or section of society that shares our tongue. So what happens when you use more than one? For South Korean Hanna Moon and Hong Konger Joyce Ng, this unique culture clash plays out in the images they create as fashion photographers, translated into a visual language they use to orient themselves as Asian creatives working in a largely Western, Eurocentric industry. Now, a new exhibition, English as a Second Language, brings together their works previously published in the pages of AnOther, Dazed, 1Granary and more, together with a new series from each photographer responding directly to the show’s setting, Somerset House.
“I really wanted to have the idea of invading Somerset House,” Moon says of how she approached the task of showing at this institution of art and culture. Its halls echo with predominantly white history, making the fact that two burgeoning Asian photographers now are showing here, for three months, monumental. It’s a fact not lost on either of them, despite Moon’s initial reservations. Admitting she had “mixed feelings” receiving the brief, her Ai Weiwei-esque fuck-you-to-the-establishment attitude softened through the support of curator Shonagh Marshall and the team effort of putting the new exhibition together.
Important conversations in this collaborative process – like whether to include Moon’s favourite image of best friend Moffy recreating a traditional nude painting pose with the addition of a divisive “Asian” surgical mask – came to demonstrate the importance of listening to and understanding meanings across cultures at the heart of English as a Second Language. Rather than the misogynistic statement about silencing women the team at Somerset House were wary of, for Moon, the mask is emblematic of her own experiences navigating Western spaces. A commonplace sign of politeness and personal health and hygiene in Asia, the extreme reaction those masks illicit outside of there was a surprise realisation for Moon. “It’s almost nothing, just a piece of paper,” she says, yet, she also notes five different men catcalled her while she wore one recently in Soho, and children will often point and laugh. As such, this disputed image becomes the crux of the exhibition, and is one of the largest photographs on display.
“It’s a really good fuel,” Moon says of the way she and Ng are perceived by British society, that is the driving force behind English as a Second Language. A reference to classes endured by many Asian children pressured to brush up on their English, the phrase is less a source of shame and embarrassment than a point of pride, frequently used as a light-hearted in-joke between the two collaborators whenever they misinterpret each other. The pair often face such issues with a sense of humour: like the often absurd preconceived notions of who they are, coming from South Korea and Hong Kong respectively, which they find amusing. Both have stories to tell where they’ve been mistaken for hairstylists on set, only for people to change the way they treat them when they find out they’re actually the photographer. For Moon, with her Western-sounding original South Korean name, people have been thrown by her ethnicity on more than one occasion. The pair largely laugh these microaggressions off: “You just have to work that to your advantage,” says Ng.
That’s not to say they don’t understand the weight of telling their stories as Asians in this industry: both are frustrated with the way conversations around inclusivity rarely focus on Asian stories, but their work is refreshing in the way it doesn’t deal with their heritage as a heavy-handed burden for them to hammer home. At a time when diversity in fashion can often feel like a push to meet quotas and seized upon as a marketing buzzword to peddle performative wokeness, the authenticity of their perspectives as Asian artists in charge of their own visions is quietly revolutionary.
“For both of us, it was never a buzzword,” Ng says, agreeing with me when I suggest that dealing with issues of diversity and real representation is just a fact of our existence as Asian women. Working within that fact, both Moon and Ng use Asian models out of a natural gravitation to shoot them, putting them in playful and at times surreal set-ups that speak to both photographers’ sense of humour. “It’s kind of like a black comedy for me,” says Moon of her work, “there’s always a bit of humour and twist in it. We’re just using this opportunity to express ourselves. I just really want them to see who we are, not like us as a nation.”
Generalisations of a whole nation’s behaviour are how debacles like Dolce & Gabbana’s chopstick-gate happen. Fresh in the public consciousness at the time of our speaking, the topic is unavoidable. These offending advertisements, designed to appeal to the brand’s large proportion of Chinese clientele, caught flack for their reduction of Chinese culture to just chopsticks – but it’s certainly not the first instance of this kind of racial insensitivity in the industry. As my early years consuming the OTT extrapolation of “oriental” motifs by designers, and a slew of glossy editorials featuring white models in kimonos can attest – fashion has always loved to borrow from Asian aesthetics with little regard for the people the culture belongs to. The uproar now is uplifting at least – a signal that things are changing: “I guess people are realising more how much power we have now,” reflects Moon.
Importantly, she also clarifies: “I think it’s quite different, using Chinese models and Asian creatives actually creating the content.” Though Dolce & Gabbana used Asian models in these ads, the resulting catastrophe speaks to the need to actually involve someone with lived experience of said culture in the conception of these ideas. Even between both Moon and Ng, there’s nuance to their experiences that shape the different ways they approach their image-making. For Moon, who grew up sheltered and removed from culture in rural South Korea, this manifests in a constant craving for new, better images and inspirations that drives the creation of her work. “You shouldn’t be satisfied with yourself ever, if you want to be a creator,” she says, echoing something my parents might say. “You can’t really be inspired by specific things over and over again – that’s going to make your work boring. It’s about constant effort.” With Joyce Ng, the overstimulation of Hong Kong’s proliferation of images (on posters, ads and product placements), largely ignored by her then, factors into the way she goes back to process and analyse images now.
Handled with care, in the hands of someone with this depth of understanding, cliché can be an opportunity for clever subversion, a space to explore fresh ideas. “It’s worse to avoid it,” Ng expands on her wariness of the inherent negativity associated with cliché. “Sometimes it’s the obvious that’s not explored enough in a deep way.” Her favourite image, In Her Five Elements, from her new series, is a testament to this, drawing as it does on the oft-adapted (and whitewashed) story of Journey To The West’s Sun WuKong a.k.a. The Monkey King.
A cornerstone of Chinese mythology, Ng puts her own spin on the Five Finger Mountain episode from the classic 16th-century text with a typically exaggerated papier-maché prop. Quite literally illustrating the story in this way, she was concerned at the time that the image would appear “too comical,” but through the alchemic mix of her lens and considered casting, a story that has been told thousands of times feels fresh again. Face peeping out, the model – a King’s College student who bookends Ng’s new series – plays into her nuanced observations of Chinese people who love taking photos when they’re travelling, exploring the way in which they “pose and interact with objects and existing sculptures” in an instinctual way. Between this and her opening image – a postcard home from London to China – she tackles the challenge of bringing the personal to the establishment that is Somerset House head on.
English may be a second language for Moon and Ng, but the images they create are anything but lost in translation. Visual distillations of each of their development as imagemakers, these photos tell the personal stories of how their different upbringings shaped the perspective they use as photographers today. What unites them both is this sense of “confidence in who you are, and using it in a positive way,” which makes it ia joy to see two Asian women on an international platform like Somerset House. “This is the time to push things,” Moon says. “People are more open-minded and they want to see new things. So push yourself.”
Hanna Moon & Joyce Ng: English as a Second Language is at Somerset House, London, from January 25 – April 28, 2019.